It’s February and Black History Month has started, a time when we recall the huge African-American contribution to our country. Ask many educated New Yorkers and you may find that they will have no idea of New York’s more than a century and a half of slavery.
The French Huguenot families who first settled Greenpoint were all slave owners who used their slaves to drain the swampy land and clear the brush so that they could farm the land. Dirck Volckertszen, the area’s original settler, brought the first slave to Greenpoint way back in 1645. Slavery in New York continued until 1827, so our area has a long history of enslaved labor.
We can only speculate about the lives of those enslaved Africans. William Felter, the author of the area’s first history, “Historic Greenpoint,” assures us that the first settlers not only treated their slaves well, but he also tells us that the slaves considered themselves as members of the family.
Recently I wrote a piece about the Penny Bridge, which spanned Newtown Creek from the foot of Meeker Avenue and about the Duryea family who occupied the house beside it for over 150 years. The Duryea’s might have been Huguenots who were fleeing persecution in France, but they were also people who enslaved African-Americans.
An amateur local historian, Dan Cumberland, dug up documents that show the brutal nature of local slavery and contradict the pleasant picture Felter paints of local slavery. The chilling ad below dates from the 1820s when the family advertised an enslaved 15-year-old boy for sale.
The claim that slaves were happy and considered themselves family members is refuted by another horrifying document offering a reward for an enslaved woman who ran away from the family farm and offering a six-cent reward for her capture.
The slave-owning Duryea’s were typical Brooklynites and slavery was widely practiced in King’s County. In 1698, 15 percent of the people in Kings County were of African descent, and virtually all were enslaved. By 1738, the percentage had risen to 25 percent. In 1790, that figure rose again with African Americans accounting for over 30 percent of Kings County’s population and most of these people were enslaved.
New York State gradually emancipated its slaves in large part because northern slavery proved unprofitable. New York lacked cash crops like cotton, sugar and tobacco that fueled the explosive growth of Southern slavery, but bondage played an important role in local history – a fact we should recall during Black History Month.